Today, August 18, 2020, marks the 100 year anniversary of the ratification of The 19th Amendment.
The Tennessee General Assembly voted to ratify the 19th Amendment, which gave American women the right to vote and shifted the national political landscape as thoroughly as any earthquake, tornado, and tidal wave combined.
By Aug. 18, 1920, more than a year had passed since the United States Congress voted to approve the amendment. Thirty-five of the necessary 36 states had already voted for ratification, but there the women’s suffrage effort had stalled. Tennessee was ratification’s last viable hope before the 1920 election, and possibly for the foreseeable future.
In a story that is legendary here, the final vote came down to the conscience of one man: Harry T. Burn, a state representative from McMinn County, who was all of 24 years old. Mr. Burn supported women’s suffrage personally, but his most vocal constituents did not and 1920 was an election year. When the governor called a special session of the legislature to consider a motion to ratify the amendment, Mr. Burn headed to Nashville hoping to avoid a vote altogether.
In the sweltering month of August, in an overdressed age without air-conditioning, the Tennessee Senate passed the motion to ratify with a comfortable margin, but legislators in the House engineered one delay after another. As the hot days wore on, lobbying from both sides intensified. In what became known as the War of the Roses, supporters of suffrage wore yellow roses in their lapels; anti-suffragists wore red. Bribes were proffered, whiskey flowed, and previously stalwart supporters defected — legislators who wore a yellow flower on one day might be found wearing a red one the next.
On the 10th day of the special session, Mr. Burn received a letter from his mother, Febb Burn, a widow back home in Niota, Tenn. Mrs. Burn urged her son to “be a good boy” and vote for ratification
That morning Mr. Burn, a red rose in his lapel, twice voted to table the motion, but each of those votes ended in a tie. A tie in the actual vote on ratification would consign the motion to defeat, so Tennessee’s anti-suffragist Speaker of the House finally put the motion to ratify up for a vote. And that’s when Mr. Burn, with his mother’s letter in his pocket, switched sides. When the clerk reached his name in the roll-call vote, he responded with a quiet “Aye.”.
There”s a little more to this story published by The New York Times but it was that dramatic. If Mr. Burn hadn’t listened to his mother, who knows how much longer women would have had to wait and fight for the vote.
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